By Nick Simonson
Even with the seemingly permanent cold conditions the region has experienced, spring will come and in the in-between, some of the most exciting fishing can be had on the ice as we enter the late hardwater season. While an auger extension may be necessary to get through areas where the surface has thickened to over three feet on some waters, late winter ice fishing can be some of the fastest of the year, especially for pike, which remain aggressive right up until they make their spawning runs. Knowing where to look and how to target these big predators can help warm things up in advance of spring and the tips that follow will keep fishing hot.
Pike are one of the earliest spawning game fish in North Dakota and begin to consider their runs early in March and can be found staging and feeding for what’s to come in areas adjacent to where they will rush for their annual mating rituals. Identifying these places using a contour map or aerial view, such as northern backwater bays, feeder creeks and other arms and offshoots of a lake that will warm quickly in spring from meltwater and increasing sunlight is the first step in targeting late-ice pike. When searching for active fish, focus on points and contours at the mouths of these backwaters and explore them with a line of holes, noting depth changes and other structure that may be attractive and provide some fish-holding magic.
Pike will be looking for easy meals, and unlike panfish and even walleyes that can be a bit sluggish this time of year, the water wolf is ready to roll on any likely food source. Work lines of holes along a break to find where pike are relating, noting that they may be making shallower moves as the season wears on into mid-March. Explore each likely area with an active lure, such as a large spoon or Jigging Rap, and set out a series of tip-ups to help cover water, watching for a flag to pop while making the rounds with a more aggressive presentation. Give each hole three to five minutes and move on to the next one, noting depth changes and how fish that show up on sonar respond to a presentation. When a depth or area with active fish is identified, cluster tip-ups to keep offerings in the high-percentage environment and run other holes around it to continue exploring.
Pike can be found in just a few feet of water under the ice, especially as the time to spawn draws near. Don’t be afraid if late March still has ample, safe surface cover to head up into the shallows of creeks and bays to locate fish that are getting amped up for their run. Odds are you’ll find them where the creek channel or main bay gives way to a skinny flat, where they can feed on prey species or those odd late-winter food items such as hibernating frogs or perhaps winterkilled fish. In the time of slim pickings, pike usually aren’t all that selective and will take what’s available, making most lures and frozen baits quite appealing when presented in the right places.
Be aware of deteriorating ice conditions as spring approaches. While it’s not uncommon after a cold winter such as this one to have stable ice into April on some lakes, be certain to check that moving water as a result of melting activity and warmer days hasn’t eroded or weakened ice, causing unsafe conditions. In a matter of 48 hours, it’s quite possible to go from hardwater angling for monster pike to catching them from shore with the first few casts of the open water season, depending on location. Keep a close eye on weather factors such as strong winds or rain in early spring which may further erode the ice and be aware it may shift or pull away from the shore quickly on gusty days.
With these tips in mind, the late ice season can provide some of the most enjoyable fishing of the year. Whether it’s chasing down popping flags or with a rod doubled over a 36-inch cylinder in the ice, a long cold winter means an extended opportunity on the ice for some of the most aggressive and hardest fighting fish in the state.
Featured Photo: Don’t be afraid to move shallower as winter wears into spring. Pike can be found making their moves under ice if it hasn’t melted yet, and it’s a great time for fast action. Simonson Photo.